Sunday August 5, 2012
Plunged into darkness
By Coomi Kapoor
The lack of coal to run power stations is a huge problem, despite the fact that India is sitting on very large coal reserves.
DESPITE the spurt in economic growth in the last two decades, in many ways India still continues to be a third world country.
Ordinary people were most rudely reminded about the ramshackle infrastructure when nearly three-quarters of the nation was plunged into darkness on Monday and Tuesday due to the collapse of the power grid.
The resulting chaos disrupted normal life and exacted huge economic and social costs. Yet, there was no immediate remedy in sight to ensure that such abrupt outages would not take place in the future.
The collapse of the northern grid in the wee hours on Monday plunged the national capital and eight states, including Uttar Pradesh (UP), Haryana and Punjab, into complete darkness. It was the worst power failure in over a decade.
The reason for the collapse was the overdraw of electricity by UP. In the ongoing sowing season, farmers need power to run tube-wells to irrigate fields, particularly in the absence of sufficient rains this season. Excess demand by UP tripped the entire grid, resulting in widespread disruption of even essential services.
In the national capital, there was virtual anarchy on the roads. The local Metro Rail system came to a screeching halt. Tens of thousands of commuters were stuck inside trains or at stations. The city-wide traffic signalling system stopped functioning, causing huge jams. Hospitals and airports operated essential services on emergency power systems. Even the Delhi High Court was without electricity. Water supply too was affected.
Since July 31 was the last day for the filing of income tax returns, tens of thousands could not reach the IT Office due to the disruption of the transport system. The IT Department has extended the last date for filing the returns by a month.
Also, long-distance trains stopped abruptly due to power failure, causing delays of over 12 hours even for prestigious inter-city fast trains. Power supply was fully restored only after 10 hours.
The response of the Government was to form a three-member committee to inquire into the causes of the collapse of the grid. The committee was to submit the report in two weeks.
But even before the committee could start functioning, a bigger shock awaited it. The very next day, three grids – northern, eastern and north-eastern – collapsed at around 1pm. This time, it caused a complete blackout in 21 states and union territories. Of some 1.2 billion Indians, over 650 million were affected.
The second blackout in as many days occurred during working hours, thus exacting a bigger toll in lost man-hours. Metro trains in the capital halted immediately, some in the dark tunnels, causing fear and anxiety among commuters.
In West Bengal, the state government declared a holiday due to the power outage. More than 300 long-distance trains were brought to a sudden halt by the blackout. A total of 260 miners trapped in a coalmine in Jharkhand faced a tough time due to power failure. After hours of tension, they were eventually rescued by emergency services.
Even before the inquiry committee submits its report, there is unanimous opinion that the real cause of the grid’s collapse was the lack of discipline among states, with some drawing more power than was their due. The failure of the electricity regulator to impose exemplary penalty on the errant states was an added factor. Besides, the regulator lacked teeth to enforce discipline among states.
Partisan politics played a major role. For instance, the central government would be hesitant to take stern action against the Samajwadi Party-led UP government since it needs the SP’s support in Parliament.
Populism of another kind also stalled power sector reforms. Since all parties competed among themselves to provide virtually free electricity to farmers and to keep the tariff low, the state-owned power companies were running at huge losses. State electricity boards were saddled with huge cumulative losses. Politicians would not allow them to charge an equitable and fair price for power from consumers. Even the state power regulators had failed to enforce financial discipline in the sector due to the lack of political will.
Post-economic liberalisation, a number of states had hived off generation and distribution functions, handing over the latter to private parties. But even this has not worked satisfactorily.
Admittedly, private distributors have sought to cut down transmission and distribution losses but even they have met political resistance. In the national capital, for instance, over a decade ago, the transmission and distribution losses were more than 50%. Since privatisation, these have been brought down to below 20%. Yet, they are still high and hurt bona fide consumers.
Despite the spurt in demand for power in recent years, supply has lagged far behind. The entry of the private sector in power generation in recent years has not helped much. Of nearly 170,000 MW of total power generation, the private sector accounts for about 15,000 MW. A number of sanctioned projects are stalled for lack of environmental clearances.
Thermal power accounts for over 65% of the total power, followed by some 22% of hydro and the remaining 12% being accounted for by both nuclear and wind energy.
The lack of coal to run power stations is a huge problem, despite the fact that India is sitting on very large coal reserves. An ambitious programme to augment capacity through new nuclear plants has met popular resistance and other hurdles, especially in the wake of the accident at the Fukushima plant in Japan.
Two consecutive days of complete blackout in large parts of the country provoked angry comments from the common man and experts alike.
A country which failed to provide adequate supply of electricity has no reason to believe that it could soon sit at the global high table.
Experts pointed out the huge difference in per capita availability of power between India and China to deflate the popular illusion that India was set to be the fastest growing economy in Asia. Power being essential for economic growth, lack of it was holding India back, they said.